The war in Ukraine, a playing card for the Ethiopian government and the rebels

The war in Ukraine finds a particular resonance in Ethiopia, where the bloody conflict between the government and the Tigray rebels continues, far from the media’s radars. While the force provides covert support to Moscow, the Tigrayans are pushing the comparison with Kyiv, hoping to unite the support of the international community.

Ethiopia is in the grip of an endless war. Seventeen months after the start of the conflict between the central government and the rebels in Tigray, the crisis gradually spread across the northern regions, claiming hundreds of thousands of casualties and causing an increased risk of starvation. The humanitarian truce, imposed by the government at the end of March, has so far not allowed any tangible progress on the ground.

In the context of this impasse, the outbreak of war on European soil with the Russian offensive in Ukraine two months ago aroused special interest in the country. While some observers point to the gap in media interest in the two conflicts, the government and the rebels are trying to take a stand to support their cause.

“Ethiopian Friends” of Russia

On the morning of Monday, April 18, a hundred Ethiopians lined up in front of the Russian embassy in Addis Ababa: volunteers came to advance to fight in Ukraine. While a few days ago, rumors of recruitment for a fee spread on social networks, The Russian Embassy refutes any official communication.

“We would like to inform you that the embassy is not accepting any applications for recruitment into the armed forces of the Russian Federation” since the start of the special operation, the authorities said in a statement on April 19, thanking the Ethiopians for their support. Military operation “in Ukraine.

“We have received emails and personal visits from Ethiopian citizens to express their solidarity and support for the Russian Federation (…) We thank all Ethiopian friends for the kind words addressed to our country.”

“It is clear in light of the country’s economic situation that the volunteers at the embassy were motivated above all by the lure of profit,” said Gerard Brunner, a specialist in the Horn of Africa who has lived in Ethiopia for many years.

The researcher continued, “Unlike some French-speaking African countries, there is no real pro-Russian sentiment among the population in Ethiopia. On the other hand, there is resentment against the United States, which supported the Tigrayan government in the 1990s. In this period, a small group of leaders preferred their interests over The interests of the people and since then the question of American intervention has become very bad in the country.

Since Joe Biden’s accession to the White House, the United States has increased pressure on the government of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, imposing sanctions in an attempt to end the conflict. In response, government supporters took to the streets to denounce Western intervention, sometimes waving banners featuring the Chinese and Russian presidents. For its part, Russia strengthened its relations with the country by signing a new military partnership agreement last July.

A demonstration in Addis Ababa on May 30, 2021 to protest against US sanctions imposed due to the conflict in the Tigray region. © Amanuel Seleshi, AFP

United against Western “interference”.

The relationship between Russia and Ethiopia also translates into mutual support within the United Nations. On March 3, a week after the start of the Russian invasion, the Ethiopian Prime Minister A communication Regarding the situation in Ukraine, he called on “all parties to exercise restraint.”

The day before, Ethiopia had left the room while voting on a United Nations resolution, adopted by a large majority, calling for Russia to immediately halt the use of force in Ukraine. Eritrea, an ally of the Ethiopian government in the war against Tigray, is one of the six countries that voted against it.

“Eritrea is a completely isolated country on the international scene, and it supports Russia because, above all, it is looking for a partner who is able to supply it with weapons without being held accountable for the issue of human rights,” said Gerard Brunier. “Ethiopia, on the contrary, is trying to maintain good relations with the West, and therefore cannot afford too frank support for Moscow. Russia still considers it an ally, especially because of its proximity to Eritrea.”

In March 2021, Russia, for its part, opposed a UN declaration calling for an end to violence in the Tigray region.

Roland Marchal, a researcher at the Center for International Research at Sciences Po and author of a study on the links between Russia and the Horn of Africa confirms. “Both Ethiopia and Russia consider Western countries hostile and interfering. However, Abiy Ahmed’s support for Moscow is above all a political calculation rather than real support for the Russian offensive in Ukraine.”

Tigray, Ukraine, the same battle?

While Abi Ahmed tries to maintain a balanced relationship between Westerners and Russia, the Tigrayans are determined to tip the scales in their favour. During March, Getachew Reda, a TPLF spokesperson and former communications minister, published several columns comparing the wars in Ukraine and Ethiopia. He stressed on March 23 that the “unprecedented unity of the liberal democratic world against the Russian invasion of Ukraine is admirable,” before lamenting that the United States’ “strong moral position” toward Moscow was not “universal.” .

A view shared by World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, himself a Tigrayan, who said on April 13 he regrets that other disputes such as those of Tigray are not working, even if they are a “small part” of the attention given to Ukraine. Quick to denounce the scourge of war in his country, Abiy Ahmed, head of the World Health Organization and former minister and executive director of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, is considered an enemy by Abiy Ahmed. The prime minister, who accuses him of meddling in Ethiopian affairs, even tried to block his re-election as head of the United Nations last January, but to no avail.

Roland Marchal asserts that “the Tigrayans are right to communicate about the humanitarian situation and they have arguments that can be put forward because the scale of destruction and the number of victims is great.” “The difference in treatment versus the wars in Ukraine and Ethiopia also deserves to be brought up. But the comparison between the two conflicts has its limitations, because unlike Vladimir Putin, Abiy Ahmed does not have an expansionist policy and respects the patriotism of its neighbours.”

While the people of Tigray deplore the atrocities of the conflict, the Ethiopian prime minister, on the contrary, is trying to make the war in his country invisible, according to Gérard Brunier. “He wants to make people believe that business as usual happens when he lost control of the situation long ago. No one is fooled, neither the Ethiopians nor the international community, but the situation suits Westerners. Ukraine is for them a priority of a strategic issue, while this is not the case on The launch is for Ethiopia. Westerners do not want to get involved in this conflict.”

Despite Western reluctance, the TPLF continues to fight it. On April 20, the Tigray government released An open letter to the Secretary-General of the United NationsAntonio Guterres, in which he once again pressed the comparison with Ukraine and called on the United Nations to be more “determined to uphold the fundamental principles of international law and humanity.”

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